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Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken of the need to “train a generation of reliable successors”. Photo: Xinhua

Explainer | How China’s Communist Party, founded by young people, continues to engage youths

  • Communist Youth League has a prominent place in party history as a springboard for state leaders
  • Recruiting young party members has been cited by top leaders as being vital to the country’s prosperity

This is the sixth in the South China Morning Post’s series of explainers about China’s Communist Party in the lead-up to the party’s centenary in July. In this piece, Zhuang Pinghui explains the importance of young people to the party amid China’s ageing population.

Soon after he became China’s president in 2013, Xi Jinping addressed youth representatives from the Communist Party.

“If the youth are prosperous, the country is prosperous. If the youth are strong, the country is strong,” he said, adding that the country’s development had always depended on young people.

The Communist Party of China has grown from a small group of about 50 Marxists to the world’s second-largest party organisation, with almost 92 million members – more than the population of Germany. Today, one in 15 people in China is a member.


SCMP Explains: How does the Chinese Communist Party operate?

SCMP Explains: How does the Chinese Communist Party operate?
Although China faces a greying population, many of the party’s members are relatively young. As of 2019, the party said that more than a third of its members were under 40, while student party members accounted for 2 per cent of the total number.

In comparison, 13 per cent of Britain’s Conservative Party and 18 per cent of its Labour Party were below 40, according to a study by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project, Queen Mary University of London and University of Sussex in 2017.

Some of this can be traced to the economic modernisation of China in the 1980s, but the history of the Communist Party’s emphasis on youth goes further back – to before it was even founded.

What role did youth play in the party’s early years?

The party’s emphasis on students can be traced back to the anti-imperial political movement in the 1910s. Founders Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, as well as many of the party’s early members, were among the Chinese intellectuals influential in the 1919 student protests known as the May Fourth Movement.

Why China’s Communist Party is inseparable from the state

In the 1920s, socialist youth leagues were established in key cities for students and young workers to study Marxism and organise revolutionary activities. These were later combined to form what is now known as the Communist Youth League of China.

Most of the 13 representatives who attended the Communist Party’s first National Congress in 1921, the year of the party’s foundation, were in their twenties and thirties.

This included Mao Zedong, who was 28 years old at the time and would eventually go on to become the founder of the People’s Republic of China and rule the country for over three decades.

Is cultivating youth still important to the Communist Party?

In its early years, the party focused primarily on recruiting members from the three “revolutionary” classes: workers, farmers and soldiers.

This changed after former chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when China underwent massive sociopolitical upheaval that saw countless politicians and intellectuals driven to their deaths.

After the revolution ended, party veterans such as Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun returned to power and expressed the wish to nurture younger, more educated potential successors to replace older, uneducated leftists with young technocrats, in order to press ahead with reforms to modernise the country.

Talk of cultivating a younger, more highly educated generation of future leaders has continued under Xi’s rule.

“To achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, the key to the party, the key to people, ultimately lies in the training of a generation of reliable successors,” the president said at a national personnel meeting in 2018.

Despite an ageing population, the proportion of young members in the party has inched up over the past two decades. Those aged 35 and below accounted for 22 per cent of the total membership in 2000, and 24 per cent in 2019, official data shows.

What attracts young people to the party?

University students in the 1980s said they joined the party for ideological reasons in support of communism and to help with reform efforts, according to a 2019 paper by Yang Shouhong, deputy chief of the Chongqing University party committee’s organisation department.

However, political enthusiasm among youths was dampened after the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown on students who were protesting for greater democracy and government transparency.


Visitors mark Chinese Communist Party centenary with pilgrimage to ‘Red Holy Land’

Visitors mark Chinese Communist Party centenary with pilgrimage to ‘Red Holy Land’

In 2012, belief in communism was a motivating factor according to 54 per cent of 3,000 college students surveyed in Shanghai, compared with previous surveys in which this was cited by 57 per cent in 2005 and 84 per cent in 1991, Yang’s paper said.

In a 2019 survey of university students in Jiangxi province, 49 per cent said a motivating factor was that it was helpful to their career, while 34 per cent cited personal gain.

The party’s central organisation department, which manages human resources, has described joining for personal gain as “impure”. These motivations may include better employment prospects in the civil service and state-owned companies, and having an achievement to list on a résumé, according to the Jiangxi survey.

Some government jobs explicitly require party membership. Support staff for the party, for example, have to be members.

In the private sector, companies including internet giants Baidu and Didi Chuxing have also advertised high-paying roles requiring Communist Party membership to take charge of “party-building” activities.

Why China’s Communist Party maintains a tight grip on the military

What does the Communist Youth League do?

In the 1980s, facing a talent drain after the Cultural Revolution, the party’s youth wing rose to prominence as an incubator and training ground for future leaders. Reformist leader Hu Yaobang, the party’s general secretary for most of the decade, was a former youth league leader.

Today, the group’s mission is to help young people “learn about socialism with Chinese characteristics and about communism through practice”.

In 2017, more than 81 million people – 6 per cent of China’s total population – were youth league members.

Admission is generally less stringent than the main party’s procedure, although the party tightened admission criteria in 2016 to limit membership to elite pupils. Youth league membership can be applied for from the age of 14, and expires automatically on turning 28, but the officials running the league can be much older.

The league has been a springboard for top state leaders and ministry-level officials in the past decade. Xi was not a youth league member, but his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua had all risen through the youth league’s ranks.

The shared experience of many high-flying officials as youth league alumni has led to political analysts referring to them as the “league clique”.

How has the Communist Party’s engagement of youth changed?

Historically influential, the youth league has come under criticism in recent years during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and efforts to “clean up” the party.

In 2014, Hu Jintao’s former top aide and former youth league member Ling Jihua was subject to criminal investigation for a litany of alleged offences, from obtaining state secrets to taking bribes and sexual misconduct. Ling was sentenced to life in jail for taking bribes in 2016.

Other one-time youth league officials who have fallen from grace after corruption charges include former Guangzhou party boss Wan Qingliang, former Inner Mongolia vice-chairman Pan Yiyang, former Nanning party secretary Yu Yuanhui, and Zhang Lebin, former deputy director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

Xi has accused the youth wing of being aristocratic and losing touch with the “grass roots”. In 2016, the party unveiled a plan to overhaul the league’s leadership structure and downsize its management, while strengthening its grass-roots outreach efforts.


Chinese universities should train ‘builders and successors’ of socialism, says President Xi Jinping

Chinese universities should train ‘builders and successors’ of socialism, says President Xi Jinping

Full-time officials from the youth league were required to engage with at least 100 league members from different fields, while part-time ones were asked to contact at least 10 young people outside the league to expand recruitment efforts.

The league was also ordered to reform its working methods to stay relevant and attract young people. Since then, it has ramped up creative outreach methods including releasing rap music videos, setting up a dating service, opening an account on Twitter – even though the social media platform is banned in China – and using animated spokespeople.
Its outreach efforts have gone beyond mainland China and include offering business and job opportunities to young people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The party extends its reach through the All-China Youth Federation, an association it founded in 1949 that has more than 50 youth groups as members, including the youth league.

Xi said in a letter last year that the federation was an important part of the party’s youth work. Its purpose, he wrote, included “organising and mobilising a large number of young people and students to follow the party”.

The federation organises events for young people on topics such as environmental protection and youth culture. It has also nominated members who are influential among the demographic, such as internet celebrities Li Ziqi and Weiya, as role models that “actively practise core socialist values”.